The way companies report the fracking chemicals they use in Ohio could change under a bill moving through the Statehouse.
Environmental activists say the legislation would make it more difficult for firefighters and people who live near fracking sites to get information about what chemicals they could be exposed to during an emergency, such as an explosion or spill.
But the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which oversees drilling in Ohio, says the provision would lead to greater transparency. The agency asked a state representative to add the provision to the bill.
“We are concerned,” said Melanie Houston, the director of water policy and environmental health at the Ohio Environmental Council, an advocacy group. “The local (emergency responders) will have to go through ODNR and their database to get the information, and we’re worried. Will they have it when they need it in the event of an emergency? Basically, we think the law should stay as it is.”
The provision is part of House Bill 490, legislation that deals with environmental and agricultural issues, oil and gas drilling and telecommunications. The bill passed the House of Representatives 73-20 on Wednesday; it now moves to the Senate.
The bill would change how Ohio deals with the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, enacted almost 30 years ago to keep residents and emergency responders informed about the hazardous chemicals in their backyards. Congress passed the act in 1986, in direct response to a 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India, that killed more than 1,700 people.
Under the act, companies must disclose the names of hazardous chemicals on each site as well as an estimate of the maximum amount of each chemical that was on the site in the previous year. They also must disclose how the chemicals are stored.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees compliance, and the information that companies disclose must be made available to state emergency-response commissions, which then make that information available to the public and local emergency responders.
In Ohio, the State Emergency Response Commission has for the past year or so been responsible for collecting that information. Before that, however, Natural Resources handled the information for the oil and gas industry.
In January 2013, emergency responders in Auglaize County went to an oil and gas site because of reports of concentrated chemical odors. They tried to get a list of the chemicals used there but were unable to, according to a petition to the U.S. EPA filed by Teresa Mills, Ohio organizer with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
Mills said she had asked in December 2012 for the complete inventory of hazardous chemicals and facilities in Ohio, but her request was referred to the state Natural Resources Department. After four months with no response from the state, she petitioned the U.S. EPA.
The U.S. EPA responded in a letter that Ohio’s laws did not supersede the Community Right-to-Know Act and that the State Emergency Response Commission must have hazardous-chemical inventories by March 1 each year. The provision in the bill would move that authority back to Natural Resources.
Bethany McCorkle, an ODNR spokeswoman, said the department asked for that authority to make it easier on local fire departments and to put information about oil and gas wells in one place. Natural Resources already maintains databases with permit information and well location on its website and has lists of chemicals that individual companies might use during drilling.
However, those databases sometimes are not available on the department’s website, which regularly gives error messages to users attempting to locate information about wells. McCorkle said the department will invest in a better website if the bill is approved as written.
“(The bill) is more for efficiency, transparency and ease of use,” she said. “But under no circumstances do I think our website is perfect now.”
Mills said she worries that Natural Resources will use that authority to limit access to hazardous-chemical information on oil and gas drilling sites.
In June, firefighters had difficulty getting access to chemical information when a fracking well caught fire in Monroe County. It took days for them to get the information from Natural Resources.
The bill takes “the authority to receive this information away from the State Emergency Response Commission, the local fire departments and the local emergency planning commission,” Mills said. ” Why does ODNR want to put the state through the expense of upgrading its system for one industry, when all the other industries are more than happy to report to SERC?”
Three other environmental groups — the Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Citizen Action and the Ohio chapter of Communities United for Responsible Energy — also oppose the bill.